Colonel Theodore B. Roosevelt

Colonel Theodore B. Roosevelt, now Governor of New York, who led The Rough Riders, tells of the Bravery of Negro Soldiers.

Colonel Theodore B. Rosevelt
Colonel Theodore B. Rosevelt

When Colonel Theodore Roosevelt returned from the command of the famous Rough Riders, he delivered a farewell address to his men, in which he made the following kind reference to the gallant Negro soldiers:

“Now, I want to say just a word more to some of the men I see standing around not of your number. I refer to the colored regiments, who occupied the right and left flanks of us at Gu├ísimas, the Ninth and Tenth cavalry regiments. The Spaniards called them ‘Smoked Yankees,’ but we found them to be an excellent breed of Yankees. I am sure that I speak the sentiments of officers and men in the assemblage when I say that between you and the other cavalry regiments there exists a tie which we trust will never be broken.”–Colored American.

The foregoing compliments to the Negro soldiers by Colonel Roosevelt started up an avalanche of additional praise for them, out of which the fact came, that but for the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry (colored) coming up at Las Gu├ísimas, destroying the Spanish block house and driving the Spaniards off, when Roosevelt and his men had been caught in a trap, with a barbed-wire fence on one side and a precipice on the other, not only the brave Capron and Fish, but the whole of his command would have been annihilated by the Spanish sharp-shooters, who were firing with smokeless powder under cover, and picking off the Rough Riders one by one, who could not see the Spaniards. To break the force of this unfavorable comment on the Rough Riders, it is claimed that Colonel Roosevelt made the following criticism of the colored soldiers in general and of a few of them in particular, in an article written by him for the April Scribner; and a letter replying to the Colonel’s strictures, follows by Sergeant Holliday, who was an “eye-witness” to the incident:

Colonel Roosevelt’s criticism was, in substance, that colored soldiers were of no avail without white officers; that when the white commissioned officers are killed or disabled, colored non-commissioned officers could not be depended upon to keep up a charge already begun; that about a score of colored infantrymen, who had drifted into his command, weakened on the hill at San Juan under the galling Spanish fire, and started to the rear, stating that they intended finding their regiments, or to assist the wounded; whereupon he drew his revolver and ordered them to return to ranks and there remain, and that he would shoot the first man who didn’t obey him; and that after that he had no further trouble.

Colonel Roosevelt is sufficiently answered in the following letter of Sergeant Holliday, and the point especially made by many eye-witnesses (white) who were engaged in that fight is, as related in Chapter V, of this book, that the Negro troops made the charges both at San Juan and El Caney after nearly all their officers had been killed or wounded. Upon what facts, therefore, does Colonel Roosevelt base his conclusions that Negro soldiers will not fight without commissioned officers, when the only real test of this question happened around Santiago and showed just the contrary of what he states? We prefer to take the results at El Caney and San Juan as against Colonel Roosevelt’s imagination.

Colonel Roosevelt’s Error

True Story of the Incident He Magnified to Our Hurt, The White Officers’ Humbug Skinned of its Hide by Sergeant Holliday, Unwritten History.

To the Editor of the New York Age:

Having read in The Age of April 13 an editorial entitled “Our Troops in Cuba,” which brings to my notice for the first time a statement made by Colonel Roosevelt, which, though in some parts true, if read by those who do not know the exact facts and circumstances surrounding the case, will certainly give rise to the wrong impression of colored men as soldiers, and hurt them for many a day to come, and as I was an eye-witness to the most important incidents mentioned in that statement, I deem it a duty I owe, not only to the fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers of those soldiers, and to the soldiers themselves, but to their posterity and the race in general, to be always ready to make an unprejudiced refutation of such charges, and to do all in my power to place the colored soldier where he properly belongs–among the bravest and most trustworthy of this land.

In the beginning, I wish to say that from what I saw of Colonel Roosevelt in Cuba, and the impression his frank countenance made upon me, I cannot believe that he made that statement maliciously. I believe the Colonel thought he spoke the exact truth. But did he know, that of the four officers connected with two certain troops of the Tenth Cavalry one was killed and three were so seriously wounded as to cause them to be carried from the field, and the command of these two troops fell to the first sergeants, who led them triumphantly to the front? Does he know that both at Las Guasima and San Juan Hill the greater part of troop B, of the Tenth Cavalry, was separated from its commanding officer by accidents of battle and was led to the front by its first sergeant?

When we reached the enemy’s works on San Juan Hill our organizations were very badly mixed, few company commanders having their whole companies or none of some body else’s company. As it was, Capt. Watson, my troop commander, reached the crest of the hill with about eight or ten men of his troop, all the rest having been accidentally separated from him by the thick underbrush during the advance, and being at that time, as was subsequently shown to be the firing line under some one else pushing to the front. We kept up the forward movement, and finally halted on the heights overlooking Santiago, where Colonel Roosevelt, with a very thin line had preceeded us, and was holding the hill. Here Captain Watson told us to remain while he went to another part of the line to look for the rest of his troop. He did not come to that part of the field again.

The Colonel made a slight error when he said his mixed command contained some colored infantry. All the colored troops in that command were cavalry men. His command consisted mostly of Rough Riders, with an aggregate of about one troop of the Tenth Cavalry, a few of the Ninth and a few of the First Regular Cavalry, with a half dozen officers. Every few minutes brought men from the rear, everybody seeming to be anxious to get to the firing line. For a while we kept up a desultory fire, but as we could not locate the enemy (he all the time keeping up a hot fire on our position), we became disgusted, and lay down and kept silent. Private Marshall was here seriously wounded while standing in plain view of the enemy, trying to point them out to his comrades.

There were frequent calls for men to carry the wounded to the rear, to go for ammunition, and as night came on, to go for rations and entrenching tools. A few colored soldiers volunteered, as did some from the Rough Riders. It then happened that two men of the Tenth were ordered to the rear by Lieutenant Fleming, Tenth Cavalry, who was then present with part of his troop, for the purpose of bringing either rations or entrenching tools, and Colonel Roosevelt seeing so many men going to the rear, shouted to them to come back, jumped up and drew his revolver, and told the men of the Tenth that he would shoot the first man who attempted to shirk duty by going to the rear, that he had orders to hold that line and he would do so if he had to shoot every man there to do it. His own men immediately informed him that “you won’t have to shoot those men, Colonel. We know those boys.” He was also assured by Lieutenant Fleming, of the Tenth, that he would have no trouble keeping them there, and some of our men shouted, in which I joined, that “we will stay with you, Colonel.” Everyone who saw the incident knew the Colonel was mistaken about our men trying to shirk duty, but well knew that he could not admit of any heavy detail from his command, so no one thought ill of the matter. Inasmuch as the Colonel came to the line of the Tenth the next day and told the men of his threat to shoot some of their members and, as he expressed it, he had seen his mistake and found them to be far different men from what he supposed. I thought he was sufficiently conscious of his error not to make a so ungrateful statement about us at a time when the Nation is about to forget our past service.

Had the Colonel desired to note the fact, he would have seen that when orders came the next day to relieve the detachment of the Tenth from that part of the field, he commanded just as many colored men at that time as he commanded at any other time during the twenty-four hours we were under his command, although colored as well as white soldiers were going and coming all day, and they knew perfectly well where the Tenth Cavalry was posted, and that it was on a line about four hundred yards further from the enemy than Colonel Roosevelt’s line. Still when they obtained permission to go to the rear, they almost invariably came back to the same position. Two men of my troop were wounded while at the rear for water and taken to the hospital and, of course, could not come back.

Our men always made it a rule to join the nearest command when separated from our own, and those who had been so unfortunate as to lose their way altogether were, both colored and white, straggling up from the time the line was established until far into the night, showing their determination to reach the front.

In explaining the desire of our men in going back to look for their comrades, it should be stated that, from the contour of the ground, the Rough Riders were so much in advance of the Tenth Cavalry that, to reach the latter regiment from the former, one had really to go straight to the rear and then turn sharply to the right; and further, it is a well known fact, that in this country most persons of color feel out of place when they are by force compelled to mingle with white persons, especially strangers, and although we knew we were doing our duty, and would be treated well as long as we stood to the front and fought, unfortunately some of our men (and these were all recruits with less than six months’ service) felt so much out of place that when the firing lulled, often showed their desire to be with their commands. None of our older men did this. We knew perfectly well that we could give as much assistance there as anywhere else, and that it was our duty to remain until relieved. And we did. White soldiers do not, as a rule, share this feeling with colored soldiers. The fact that a white man knows how well he can make a place for himself among colored people need not be discussed here.

I remember an incident of a recruit of my troop, with less than two months’ service, who had come up to our position during the evening of the 1st, having been separated from the troop during the attack on San Juan Hill. The next morning, before the firing began, having seen an officer of the Tenth, who had been sent to Colonel Roosevelt with a message, returning to the regiment, he signified his intention of going back with him, saying he could thus find the regiment. I remonstrated with him without avail and was only able to keep him from going by informing him of the Colonel’s threat of the day before. There was no desire on the part of this soldier to shirk duty. He simply didn’t know that he should not leave any part of the firing line without orders. Later, while lying in reserve behind the firing line, I had to use as much persuasion to keep him from firing over the heads of his enemies as I had to keep him with us. He remained with us until he was shot in the shoulder and had to be sent to the rear.

I could give many other incidents of our men’s devotion to duty, of their determination to stay until the death, but what’s the use? Colonel Roosevelt has said they shirked, and the reading public will take the Colonel at his word and go on thinking they shirked. His statement was uncalled for and uncharitable, and considering the moral and physical effect the advance of the Tenth Cavalry had in weakening the forces opposed to the Colonel’s regiment, both at La Guasima and San Juan Hill, altogether ungrateful, and has done us an immeasurable lot of harm.

And further, as to lack of qualifications for command, I will say that when our soldiers, who can and will write history, sever their connections with the Regular Army, and thus release themselves from their voluntary status of military lockjaw, and tell what they saw, those who now preach that the Negro is not fit to exercise command over troops, and will go no further than he is led by white officers, will see in print held up for public gaze, much to their chagrin, tales of those Cuban battles that have never been told outside the tent and barrack room, tales that it will not be agreeable for some of them to hear. The public will then learn that not every troop or company of colored soldiers who took part in the assaults on San Juan Hill or El Caney was led or urged forward by its white officer.

It is unfortunate that we had no colored officers in that campaign, and this thing of white officers for colored troops is exasperating, and I join with The Age in saying our motto for the future must be: “No officers, no soldiers.”

Presley Holliday
Sergeant Troop B, Tenth Cavalry.
Fort Ringgold, Texas, April 22, 1899.

Jacob A. Riis in The Outlook gives the following interesting reading concerning the colored troopers in an article entitled “Roosevelt and His Men”:

“It was one of the unexpected things in this campaign that seems destined to set so many things right that out of it should come the appreciation of the colored soldier as man and brother by those even who so lately fought to keep him a chattel. It fell to the lot of General ‘Joe’ Wheeler, the old Confederate warrior, to command the two regiments of colored troops, the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry, and no one will bear readier testimony than he to the splendid record they made. Of their patience under the manifold hardships of roughing it in the tropics, their helpfulness in the camp and their prowess in battle, their uncomplaining suffering when lying wounded and helpless. Stories enough are told to win for them fairly the real brotherhood with their white-skinned fellows which they crave. The most touching of the many I heard was that of a Negro trooper, who, struck by a bullet that cut an artery in his neck, was lying helpless, in danger of bleeding to death, when a Rough Rider came to his assistance. There was only one thing to be done–to stop the bleeding till a surgeon came. A tourniquet could not be applied where the wound was. The Rough Rider put his thumb on the artery and held it there while he waited. The fighting drifted away over the hill. He followed his comrades with longing eyes till the last was lost to sight. His place was there, but if he abandoned the wounded cavalryman it was to let him die. He dropped his gun and stayed. Not until the battle was won did the surgeon come that way, but the trooper’s life was saved. He told of it in the hospital with tears in his voice: ‘He done that to me, he did; stayed by me an hour and a half, and me only a nigger.'”

General Nelson Miles
General Nelson Miles

General Nelson A. Miles, Pays a Tribute to the Negro Soldiers
Major-General Nelson A. Miles, Commander-in-Chief of the army of the United States spoke at the Peace Jubilee at Chicago, October 11th, and said:

“While the chivalry of the South and the yeomanry of the North vied with their devotion to the cause of their country and in their pride in its flag which floated over all, it’s a glorious fact that patriotism was not confined to any one section or race for the sacrifice, bravery and fortitude. The white race was accompanied by the gallantry of the black as they swept over intrenched lines and later volunteered to succor the sick, nurse the dying and bury the dead in the hospitals and the Cuban camps.”

“This was grandly spoken, and we feel gratified at this recognition of the valor of one of the best races of people the world has ever seen.”

“We are coming, boys; it’s a little slow and tiresome, but we are coming.”–Colored American.

At a social reunion of the Medal of Honor Legion held a few evenings since to welcome home two of their members, General Nelson A. Miles, commanding the army of the United States, and Colonel M. Emmett Urell, of the First District Columbia Volunteers, in the course of his remarks, General Miles paid the finest possible tribute to the splendid heroism and soldierly qualities evidenced by the men of the 9th and 10th Cavalry, and 24th and 25th United States Infantry in the late Santiago campaign, which he epitomized as “without a parallel in the history of the world.”

At the close of his remarks, Major C.A. Fleetwood, the only representative of the race present, in behalf of the race extended their heartfelt and warmest thanks for such a magnificent tribute from such a magnificent soldier and man.–Colored American.

Cleveland Moffitt, In Leslie’s Weekly, Describes the Heroism of a “Black Color Bearer”
“Having praised our war leaders sufficiently, in some cases more than sufficiently (witness Hobson), let us give honor to some of the humbler ones, who fought obscurely, but did fine things nevertheless.”

Sergeant Berry
Sergeant Berry

Sergeant Berry, The first soldier who reached the Block House on San Juan Hill and hoisted the American flag in a hail of Spanish bullets.
“There was Sergeant Berry, for instance, of the Tenth Cavalry, who might have boasted his meed of kisses, too, had he been a white man. At any rate, he rescued the colors of a white regiment from unseemly trampling and bore them safely through the bullets to the top of San Juan hill. Now, every one knows that the standard of a troop is guarded like a man’s own soul, or should be, and how it came that this Third Cavalry banner was lying on the ground that day is something that may never be rightly known. Some white man had left it there, many white men had let it stay there, but Berry, a black man, saw it fluttering in shame and paused in his running long enough to catch it up and lift it high overhead beside his own banner–for he was a color-bearer of the Tenth.”
“Then, with two flags flying above him, and two heavy staves to bear, this powerful negro (he is literally a giant in strength and stature) charged the heights, while white men and black men cheered him as they pressed behind. Who shall say what temporary demoralization there may have been in this troop of the Third at that critical moment, or what fresh courage may have been fired in them by that black man’s act! They say Berry yelled like a demon as he rushed against the Spaniards, and I, for one, am willing to believe that his battle-cry brought fighting energy to his own side as well as terror to the enemy.”

“After the fight one of the officers of the Third Cavalry sought Berry out and asked him to give back the trophy fairly won by him, and his to keep, according to the usages of war. And the big Negro handed back the banner with a smile and light word. He had saved the colors and rallied the troop, but it didn’t matter much. They could have the flag if they wanted it.”
“There are some hundreds of little things like this that we might as well bear in mind, we white men, the next time we start out to decry the Negro!”

President McKinley recognizes the worth of Negro Soldiers by Promotion

Washington, July 30.–Six colored non-commissioned officers who rendered particularly gallant service in the actions around Santiago on July 1st and 2d have been appointed second lieutenants in the two colored immune regiments recently organized under special act of Congress. These men are: Sergeants William Washington, Troop F, and John C. Proctor, Troop I, of the 9th Cavalry, and Sergeants William McBryar, Company H; Wyatt Hoffman, Company G; Macon Russell, Company H, and Andrew J. Smith, Company B, of the 25th Infantry, commanded by Colonel Daggett. Jacob C. Smith, Sergeant Pendergrass, Lieutenant Ray, Sergeant Horace W. Bivins, Lieutenant E.L. Baker, Lieutenant J.H. Hill, Lieutenant Buck.–N.Y. World.

These promotions were made into the volunteer regiments, which were mustered out after the war, thus leaving the men promoted in the same rank they were before promotion if they chose to re-enlist in the regular army. They got no permanent advancement by this act of the President, but the future may develop better things for them.

Competent to be Officers, The verdict of General Thomas J. Morgan, after a study of the Negro’s quality as a soldier
General Thomas J. Morgan belongs to that class of Caucasian observers who are able to think clearly upon the Negro problem in all of its phases, and who have not only the breadth of intelligence to form just and generous opinions, but who possess that rarer quality, the courage to give them out openly to the country. General Morgan contributes the following article to the New York Independent, analyzing the motives which underlie the color line in the army.

He has had wide experience in military affairs, and his close contact with Negro soldiers during the civil war entitles him to speak with authority. General Morgan says:

“The question of the color line has assumed an acute stage, and has called forth a good deal of feeling. The various Negro papers in the country are very generally insisting that if the Negro soldiers are to be enlisted, Negro officers should be appointed to command them. One zealous paper is clamoring for the appointment, immediately, by the President, of a Negro Major-General. The readers of The Independent know very well that during the civil war there were enlisted in the United States army 200,000 Negro soldiers under white officers, the highest position assigned to a black man being that of first sergeant, or of regimental sergeant-major. The Negroes were allowed to wear chevrons, but not shoulder straps or epaulets. Although four Negro regiments have been incorporated in the regular army, and have rendered exceptionally effective service on the plains and elsewhere for a whole generation, there are to-day no Negro officers in the service. A number of young men have been appointed as cadets at West Point, but the life has not been by any means an easy one. The only caste or class with caste distinctions that exists in the republic is found in the army; army officers are, par excellence, the aristocrats; nowhere is class feeling so much cultivated as among them; nowhere is it so difficult to break down the established lines. Singularly enough, though entrance to West Point is made very broad, and a large number of those who go there to be educated at the expense of the Government have no social position to begin with, and no claims to special merit, and yet, after having been educated at the public expense, and appointed to life positions, they seem to cherish the feeling that they are a select few, entitled to special consideration, and that they are called upon to guard their class against any insidious invasions. Of course there are honorable exceptions. There are many who have been educated at West Point who are broad in their sympathies, democratic in their ideas, and responsive to every appeal of philanthropy and humanity; but the spirit of West Point has been opposed to the admission of Negroes into the ranks of commissioned officers, and the opposition to the commissioning of black men emanating from the army will go very far toward the defeat of any project of that kind.”

“To make the question of the admission of Negroes into the higher ranks of commissioned officers more difficult is the fact that the organization of Negro troops under the call of the President for volunteers to carry on the war with Spain, has been left chiefly to the Governors of states. Very naturally the strong public sentiment against the Negro, which obtains almost universally in the South, has thus far prevented the recognition of his right to be treated precisely as the white man is treated. It would be, indeed, almost revolutionary for any Southern Governor to commission a Negro as a colonel of a regiment, or even a captain of a company. (Since this was written two Negro colonels have been appointed–in the Third North Carolina and Eighth Illinois.) Even where there are exceptions to this rule, they are notable exceptions. Everywhere through the South Negro volunteers are made to feel that they are not upon the same plane as white volunteers.”

“In a recent conversation with the Adjutant General of the army, I was assured by him that in the organization of the ten regiments of immunes which Congress has authorized, the President had decided that five of them should be composed of Negroes, and that while the field and staff officers and captains are to be white, the lieutenants may be Negroes. If this is done it will mark a distinct step in advance of any taken hitherto. It will recognize partially, at least, the manhood of the Negro, and break down that unnatural bar of separation now existing. If a Negro is a lieutenant, he will command his company in the absence of the captain. He can wear epaulets, and be entitled to all the rights and privileges ‘of an officer and a gentleman;’ he is no longer doomed to inferiority. In case of battle, where bullets have no respect of persons, and do not draw the line at color, it may easily happen that a regiment or battalion will do its best work in the face of the enemy under the command of a Negro chief. Thus far the Government has been swift to recognize heroism and efficiency, whether performed by Commodore Dewey at Manila or Lieutenant Hobson at Santiago, and it can hardly be otherwise than that it will be ready to recognize exceptional prowess and skill when performed by a Negro officer.”

“All, perhaps, which the Negroes themselves, or their friends, have a right to ask in their behalf is, that they shall have a chance to show the stuff they are made of. The immortal Lincoln gave them this chance when he admitted them to wear the blue and carry a musket; and right manfully did they justify his confidence. There was not better fighting done during the civil war than was done by some of the Negro troops. With my experience, in command of 5,000 Negro soldiers, I would, on the whole, prefer, I think, the command of a corps of Negro troops to that of a corps of white troops. With the magnificent record of their fighting qualities on many a hard-contested field, it is not unreasonable to ask that a still further opportunity shall be extended to them in commissioning them as officers, as well as enlisting them as soldiers.”

“Naturally and necessarily the question of fitness for official responsibility is the prime test and ought to be applied, and if Negroes cannot be found of sufficient intelligence or preparation for the duties incumbent on army officers, nobody should object to the places being given to qualified white men. But so long as we draw no race line of distinction as against Germans or Irishmen, and institute no test of religion, politics or culture, we ought not to erect an artificial barrier of color. If the Negroes are competent they should be commissioned. If they are incompetent they should not be trusted with the grave responsibilities attached to official position. I believe they are competent.”



MLA Source Citation:

Johnson, Edward A. History of Negro Soldiers in the Spanish-American War, and other items of Interest. 1899. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 10 October 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/military/colonel-theodore-b-roosevelt.htm - Last updated on Mar 7th, 2013


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